Tennessee has little time to regroup as it prepares to close out the regular season against in-state rival Vanderbilt on Saturday night in Nashville, Tenn.
The Volunteers (9-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) endured a crushing 63-38 road loss to South Carolina last week.
Tennessee dropped from the cusp of the College Football Playoff at No. 5 to No. 10 in the new rankings released Tuesday night.
Making things worse, starting quarterback Hendon Hooker was lost for the remainder of the season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament.
So what’s left for the Volunteers to play for?
“I don’t really know when (was) the last time we played for a New Year’s Six bowl, but I know that that’s still a big bowl game for us,” Tennessee defensive tackle Omari Thomas said. “That’s still something that we’re looking forward to.”
The 2000 Fiesta Bowl, when Tennessee was coming off a national championship the year before, was the last time the Volunteers played in a postseason game comparable to a “New Year’s Six” bowl.
Tennessee will try to rally behind backup quarterback Joe Milton III, a senior transfer from Michigan and Hooker’s roommate who has played sparingly in six games this season.
“Outside of subtle nuances that we’ll study through the snaps he has taken, I think this is a system offense,” Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said. “I don’t see it as deviating if at all from what has delivered their success.”
Milton has completed 23 of 33 passes for 573 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions while rushing for 72 yards on seven attempts.
“(Milton) was preparing like he was QB1 throughout the whole year, so he is definitely prepared for this opportunity,” Tennessee running back Jabari Small said. “It was just time, he was going to get his chance. Hate (that) it had to be under these circumstances, but he is more than ready.”
After winning five games combined the previous three seasons, Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5) has put together back-to-back upset victories over then-No. 24 Kentucky and Florida to give itself a chance to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018.
The Commodores have their own quarterback quandary as it is still unclear whether freshman AJ Swann, who hasn’t played since getting hurt on Nov. 5 against South Carolina, will be ready to return this weekend. He and junior Mike Wright were listed as co-starters on the team’s depth chart this week.
Swann has completed 104 of 181 passes for 1,195 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions while Wright has connected on 78 of 135 for 946 yards and 12 touchdowns with four interceptions.
“(Swann) hasn’t played football in a while, so we want to be conscious of that,” Lea said. “Obviously, we know his skills and he has certainly accumulated enough reps this year to be ready. He has to be healthy. If he’s healthy, then the decision tips to the person who gives our team the best chance to win.”
Vanderbilt hopes to take advantage of a Tennessee defense that gave up a staggering 606 yards of total offense against South Carolina last week.
Tennessee is 78-33-5 all-time against Vanderbilt and has won the past three meetings. The Commodores’ most recent win came in Nashville in 2018.
–Field Level Media